Ramona Koval: Hello, welcome to Books and Writing. I’m Ramona Koval, and you’re on ABC Radio National. This week: a conversation with a writer who’s been hailed all over the world as the best living writer of short stories. Jonathan Franzen has argued in The New York Times that she’s the best writer of fiction working in North America, and John Updike and AS Byatt have compared her to Chekhov and Flaubert. She’s Alice Munro; she’s 73, she lives in a remote area of Canada, and her first collection was published when she was 37 years old, the result of 15 years of thinking and reading-and of sending off manuscripts and of having them arrive back to her a few weeks later-and in that you might find the argument to stop writing altogether, or maybe to finally start.
Alice Munro’s plots often pivot on one moment from which there’s no going back, and they’re mostly set in and around a small rural town with people who are surviving births, deaths, marriages and divorces the way we do anywhere, and in these stories people often compromise. There are yearnings and there is much mulling over what might have happened had everything been different.
Her new collection is called Runaway, and I found that each story in this book was so perfect that I didn’t want to start a new one before really savouring the effect of the one I’d just read. And the thing about reading an Alice Munro story is that soon after it opens there’s a feeling of discomfort, or tension, even, but you often can’t say what the story is even about at that point. It emerges from the page like a sculpture emerges from a lump of stone. So when I spoke to Alice Munro from a studio in the town of Stratford, Ontario, in Canada…to which she, by the way, had travelled 35 miles in a blizzard…I asked her if this experience of reading a story was close to the experience of writing it.
Alice Munro: I suppose it is, in a way. I think about it for quite a while before I start writing, so this emerging process happens pretty well before I start to write, and then when I write, of course, it changes, and it’s changing a lot as I go along but generally the original idea stays there, the idea that I want to build this story around, so it takes me quite a while too. Then when I finish it I will do more drafts, really trying got get, if you like, the sculpture to come cleaner out of the stone.
Ramona Koval: How do you know those things that will make a story? Those moments; things that people say or a look that you observe…how do you know that that’s something that will be the germ of a story?
Alice Munro: Well, the germ of a story is usually a little more than that. It’s an idea about relationships or something, and then all these other things that you’re talking about, you know…If we take the first story in the book which is called ‘Runaway’, then in this story what really started me off, I suppose, is the idea that a woman will very much want to leave her marriage, her situation that has gotten too difficult, and then she will find that without this very difficulty, without this stress sort of shaping her life, she cannot find herself, and so she turns around and goes back. Okay, that’s rather an idea, isn’t it? But then the characters began to emerge, and then all sorts of things began to happen, like the woman who lives across the road…a very important thing in that story, the thing that really roused my excitement when I found it was the goat. That wasn’t there for a while. I was just thinking about the girl, and she and her husband have this horse farm, and then I thought about what the countryside looked like, and their neighbours, you know, all sorts of things like this, and then I knew how the story would go.
Ramona Koval: You’re talking about the goat who gets lost; Flora the goat?
Alice Munro: Flora the goat gets lost and comes back and then…what else happens to her, I won’t tell you.
Ramona Koval: No, I won’t either, but I will talk to you about the opening of that story. If you wouldn’t mind, I just wanted to read it.
[reading from ‘Runaway’: from ‘Carla heard the car coming…’ to ‘…let it not be her’]
Now, there’s all sorts of portent in that opening, isn’t there?
Alice Munro: Yes.
Ramona Koval: What you do is you create such a tension. Something simple is happening; a woman is listening for a car, but in a couple of sentences we know that there’s something behind all this.
Alice Munro: Yes, and so I would have to know everything behind it before I wrote that paragraph. That’s the way I write. Some people write and they discover the story as they go along, but when I started the story at that point I did know everything that had happened up to that point and pretty well what would happen in the future. Now, that might have changed as I went along, though in this story not much did change, I just worked it out as I wanted it to go with…what would change as I worked it would be ways to make the feeling more clear, just things that you do with words, not directions of what could be called the plot, I suppose.
Ramona Koval: ‘Things you do with words’…it sounds so simple but you’re a master at it. In your story Powers, you have a part of the story where the character falls into a dream, and it’s so well written that she has sort of slipped into a dream and it takes a while for the reader to work out that it is a dream. Can you talk about that decision to make the dream like that?
Alice Munro: Yes, I’m trying to remember…That is a story that I wrote differently from ‘Runaway’. It did sort of shape itself as I went along, and when I came to that point I wanted the character to have a dream that was really a kind of vision, and it was a vision of the way she wanted so much to see things but also it was a vision that I, as the writer, saw as a possibility, in the sense that there might have been, between these two people whose lives we follow, the two people that she’s dreaming about-there might have been something like this, that she might have been in this dream catching a kind of reality about these other two people. In other words, the story is really…a lot of it is about looking into secrets, about finding things in ways that we can’t explain, or knowing things that we can’t explain. And generally it’s the other woman in the story, Tessa, who’s been gifted in this way, but at the very end I wanted the woman who’s been wondering about everything and who’s been on the outside to have this moment’s revelation. It’s not necessarily a false revelation. It’s one that isn’t borne out by any factual truth that we see. Are you following me?
Ramona Koval: I am absolutely following you. I’m following every word.
Alice Munro: I’m getting myself twisted around because I haven’t really expressed this before, but anyway that came to me as the way I had to end it.
Ramona Koval: This matter of uncertainty also follows through in many of your stories, in this collection at least, and probably a lot of them-What can we know? What can we be sure of? Can we really know what another person is thinking or feeling? Can we really remember what we felt or thought at the time? Can you talk a little bit about uncertainty and your characters?
Alice Munro: Oh of course, because I think that’s a strong…almost a reason for my writing. I feel that things are very mysterious, even in what we call fairly ordinary lives, and that they can’t be easily explained, and yet this very quality of life is wonderful. It’s not always comfortable or pleasant, but it makes me want to write the more I…I won’t say I understand, but the more I feel that this is so.
Ramona Koval: Your characters are great self improvers, aren’t they? As they get older, the women especially, they study things, they investigate things, they think on what has happened, they try and learn from what has happened, they try and work out what it’s about.
Alice Munro: But something always comes along to surprise them or knock them off that a bit-but yes, I think that the women I like to write about…you know, I write about older women. I’ve always written about characters who are about the age I am, and I’m getting to the age where there’s much reflection and really trying to puzzle things out. Not that you ever really do, and you know that and you know that at different times of your life you’ll see things quite differently, and that, too, is one of the endlessly interesting things. I mean, this is just what I find in people’s lives; surprises.
Ramona Koval: Jonathan Franzen said that more than any writer since Chekhov, you strive for and achieve in each of your stories, he says, ‘a gestalt-like completeness in the representation of a life’, that you’ve ‘had a genius for developing and unpacking moments of epiphany’. And for me, in this collection, it’s like that moment in the story ‘Passion’, where a young woman, Grace, is asked by her fiancapos;s brother if she wants to go home or ride off with him, and she says she doesn’t want to go home, and you say in the story, ‘describing this passage, this change in her life, later on Grace might say (she did say) that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her but at the time there was no clang. Acquiescence simply rippled through her. The rights of those left behind were smoothly cancelled. Her memory of this day remained clear and detailed, though there was a variation of the parts that she dwelt on, and even in some of those details, she must have been wrong.’ Now, boy! I mean, when you hear that, what do you think?
Alice Munro: Well, I think that that’s exactly what I wanted to say, so I’m not dissatisfied with that passage. And I do want to say that we have these moments in life which are all-important but we might quite mistake what we felt at the time, or we may see, at different stages in our lives, a complete difference of emphasis in what was happening. Of course, when she is overwhelmed by a kind of, I suppose, a sexual curiosity which almost seems like lassitude, acquiescence, and later on it may well be that she won’t want to feel that she was driven more and not more accepting of this adventure, which doesn’t turn out after all to be a sexual adventure but is an adventure in understanding something about this man and, beyond him, something about life.
Ramona Koval: These young girls in your stories, they almost sleep-walk through their lives, they almost behave as if they’re not really the main characters in their own lives.
Alice Munro: That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, but I think you’re right, I think that’s what happens. When I think of myself as a young girl, I think of curiosity and a desire to know about life and to be swept into life, rather like Grace, but I didn’t think of myself that way at the time. I thought of myself as a very decisive person who didn’t let life shove me around. But looking back on it I have an idea that forces…maybe at all times of your life, forces are moving you that you can’t identify at the time.
Ramona Koval: Some of those girls…in a sense they’re happy to be swept along because some of the things that happened to them…you write about a time where they may not have been able to make bold choices, actually, and they have to be bold in areas in which life presents possibilities to them.
Alice Munro: Yes. That’s right, and in a way they have to…letting yourself be swept along is, after all, a decision, and it’s bold at that time. It’s flinging yourself on life and not drawing back and I think that’s an attitude that interests me.
Ramona Koval: You’re also interested in the relationship between older women and younger women. There are several relationships in this collection of older women and younger women. Sometimes there’s almost an erotic drawing towards the younger woman, sometimes there’s a maternal drawing towards the younger woman. In a way, it’s like as one gets older one thinks of oneself as a younger woman, as a kind of a friendship with oneself as a younger person.
Alice Munro: Yes, that’s true. This is an aspect of life that interests me very much and I wanted it to be important in the stories. I think Grace and her potential mother-in-law have, in a way, a more understanding relationship…in a way, this woman seems to understand Grace better than either her fiancor the man she wants to yield to understand her. And then it’s quite different in ‘Runaway’. I wanted very much an erotic undertone there which the young woman is practically unaware of because she’s so full of her own life, but the older woman has kind of drifted into it, into a sort of obsession with this young girl. Because at first I wondered why I wanted the older woman there so much and then I began to see her character and why she would be there, and why also her attempt to help the young woman is completely beside the point.
Ramona Koval: In a way I had the sense that the older woman was longing for her own youth, and saw the young woman as an evocation of herself as a young woman.
Alice Munro: I suppose that’s partly true, because I think often older woman give advice to young girls which is eminently sensible, and they give advice in terms of freedom and taking a hard look at things, which the younger woman may just not be capable, at that stage, of doing. It seems to us, as we get older, that many mistakes in life could perhaps be avoided, but it turns out maybe they can’t be.
Ramona Koval: Well, you have to have something to be bucking against, don’t you?
Alice Munro: Yes.
Ramona Koval: There’s three stories around a character called Juliet. We meet Juliet when she’s a young woman, and there’s an event where she goes on a train and a man tries to talk to her, a man who’s obviously lonely and tries to sort of ‘chum up’ with her, as it were. She doesn’t think he’s trying to form some sort of a sexual liaison, she knows that he just wants to have a friend for the journey on the train, but she declines his friendship or his company, and very soon after that he finds a way of getting the train to run him over. That’s just something that happens in her youth. In another story we meet her when she’s a woman who’s having a child or had a young girl, Penelope. And later on we meet her in yet another story when she’s an older woman and she’s estranged from her daughter. When I finished that third story, I suddenly thought back to the first story about that episode on the train, and for me I thought-does she deserve the rejection of her daughter in the end because actually her character, which has been formed in that first story, shows us that she’s not as open to the friendship of the man on the train as perhaps she could be? For me, those stories were connected, and I wondered whether the guilt she felt back then on the train has a kind of substance at the core of her character, and that her character is fate, and her fate was that she was going to be separated from her daughter in some sense…separated from the world in some sense.
Alice Munro: I didn’t see it quite that way. I see what you mean but, for me, the rejection of the man on the train was a simply desperate effort to preserve her time and her own mind. I think women more than men are always presented with choices in which they either do what they want to do or they do good for someone. In this instance she is presented with someone who really needs her and the need is only…it looks trivial perhaps…it’s a sacrifice of her time. In this case she finds the strength, maybe for the first time, to reject a person who is asking for this. And certainly in the view of his subsequent suicide, this is a very harsh, unfeeling thing to have done, and she thinks of it that way herself, but I felt that in this way she is protecting herself. I think we all have to make those choices sometimes when we protect ourselves by being what may seem later to be unkind, just because you don’t have enough resources to give everyone what they need from you. Then, in the second story the same thing happens to her. In her intellectual pride she doesn’t give her mother the reassurance and tenderness that her mother needs when they discuss the Christian religion, and in the last then she herself is discarded by someone, her daughter, who may simply…I tried to think this out…I think her daughter may simply want to be free, not that she wants to be cruel. But I think in all children, along with a love of parents, there’s a desire to get free of them. So, why this doesn’t wholly explain what the daughter did, because I really wanted this story not to be about what the daughter did but about how the mother felt…and this is how we feel when we are up against something that we don’t seem to have deserved, that we can’t figure out. So, why it happened is really not that important to me.
Ramona Koval: So, for you, is character fate?
Alice Munro: I suppose so, to some extent, but I don’t think character is that consistent all through life. I suppose there is something about it that is fate. But with this woman, Juliet, I feel that her rejections are not entirely unnecessary, and that, to me, is what is interesting about the story. Always what interests me about a story is what is not simple.
Ramona Koval: You have a lot of brothers and cousins and twins in this collection of stories. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Alice Munro: Yes, well, that’s another interesting thing, I guess. I hadn’t thought about that, really. In the story about the twins, what I really wanted to do was do an almost mannered story. I’ve mentioned Shakespearean comedies, and she goes to the theatre, so I wanted to bring a little bit of that kind of plot in which can be farcical and usually is. That’s really what I wanted to do in that story is make a more plot-controlled story because I think sometimes in life it’s not true that plots don’t work out in life. Sometimes very tight situations do happen, so I wanted to see what I could get around this, and of course twins was one of the things that presented itself to me, and also something happened with a friend of mine and twins that really started the story.
Ramona Koval: What happened?
Alice Munro: Well, this is my friend’s story so I’m not going to tell it, but the thing is that what twins produce, really, is the opportunity for one to get completely contrasting characters, aspects really, from what seems like the same person, and I think that’s why the twin device is so often used. You know, in Shakespeare often it’s a brother and sister so the sexual aspect is quite different too, but in that story it was just the mistake that can be made, and this came from a much more trivial situation and a mistake someone I knew made about twins.
Ramona Koval: Well, this is a story of a young girl who meets a man when she’s lost her purse and he is kind to her, and then there is some moment when he kisses her and says, ‘Come back next year. Don’t tell me you’re coming, just arrive back and see another Shakespeare play and wear the same dress…’ It’s terribly romantic and very exciting, and she’s the kind of girl that will do that; won’t ring him up or anything in the meantime but will turn up, but her dress isn’t clean at the right time so she has to buy another dress, and what happens then, she wonders whether it was the green dress…she wore the wrong dress!
Alice Munro: Yes, that’s a little magic bit in there, but she is in contact with people who (because she’s a nurse) people who take precautions so that their lives will work out right, their pencils have to be arranged on their desk, and so on.
Ramona Koval: And there’s a sense that talismans are important.
Alice Munro: Well, she does think this but I think it’s only to comfort herself she thinks that…as if there is some magic that has been working, because it’s a little better to feel that way maybe than to just feel that blind chance has come in and messed up something in her life.
Ramona Koval: One feels that one might have a little point of control over these things, if only one knew what it was at the time.
Alice Munro: If only one knew!
Ramona Koval: You have somebody…I can’t quite remember where…this is Grace and she can smell hamburgers in the air…
Alice Munro: Oh yes, it’s when she gets out and walks along and it’s in the park and she looks at the water…
Ramona Koval: You’ve written, ‘The smell did not make Grace hungry exactly, it made her remember being hungry in other circumstances.’ That is such a strange way to say…
Alice Munro: Well, I think what I was trying to say is that she is so sort of tossed up by this experience she’s having that the normal things of life, like being hungry, are removed from her because she’s really going through a lot of strangeness in her life, just as if…well, take a rather silly example, if you saw a ghost and it was the time of day that you might feel hungry but you’d be too full of the ghost experience. So, that’s it; she’s full of another experience at the time.
Ramona Koval: I think that listeners can probably hear the thought that goes into the way you express yourself and the multilayering that goes into that. I want to just go back a little bit to when you talked about…I think it was Juliet on the train and she decided she wanted a little bit of time for herself where nobody else was going to impinge on her, and that’s why she doesn’t agree to chum up with the man on the train. And I wondered whether you could talk about you, in your life as a woman writer, writing at the time that you became a writer (I think you were in your late 30s). Finding the time must have been pretty important to you; you had children, you were married…
Alice Munro: Yes, it was very difficult. Actually though, I published my first book when I was around 36 or 37. I’d been writing since I was 20, that was the age I was when I got married, and actually the children and the housework I did, even in the days when I didn’t have an automatic washing-machine or anything like that, were not the problem. You can always find time if you’re in control of your life, but if you’re a woman (I think this has been said before) if you’re a woman in a house, you are sort of available to anyone who just needs…not even someone who needs help, but someone who wants to pass the time. The life of women at that time was, in a way, very formless; they were in their houses, they did this work, but in the times that were empty there was often a great deal of informal sociability…you know, phone calls, and you didn’t have answering machines, and you were assumed not to have any special inner thing of your own, and it was very difficult to have anything when you hadn’t proved it yet. I would never say to anybody…the thought of saying, ‘I’m writing this afternoon while the children have their naps,’ was impossible for me. It was a claim I just wasn’t strong enough to be able to make, and I don’t think that is so true of women now, and it was really one of the most difficult things about my life as a young woman. But, in a way, it was all right because I wasn’t really ready to write, I was practising being a writer, and had I been having to prove myself immediately by getting a novel out by the time I was 25, that too would have been disastrous. I just don’t think there is any way that’s easy to be a young writer.
Ramona Koval: What about being an older writer, as you are now?
Alice Munro: Well, that has its drawbacks too because you’re going to die, but otherwise it’s a lot easier in a way in that you make claims…you’ve finally published books, you make claims for yourself, you say, ‘I’m a writer,’ and that means that if you want to write you can get time to do it.
Ramona Koval: I don’t think you’re going to die very soon, you sound pretty good to me.
Alice Munro: I hope not.
Ramona Koval: Alice Munro, thank you so much for speaking with Books and Writing.
Alice Munro: Okay, good to talk to you, Ramona.
Ramona Koval: Alice Munro. Her new book is called Runaway and it’s published by Chatto & Windus. That’s all from Book and Writing this week, which is produced by me, Ramona Koval, and Michael Shirrefs.